1. ExNASATerry
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    Debt to Society

    Discussion in '2013 Science Fiction Writing Contest' started by ExNASATerry, Dec 3, 2013.

    The dropship thundered away into the pale-blue alien sky, diminishing to a point then disappearing. We all watched it, six strangers with nothing in common except violence. And possibly stupidity, since we had all plea-bargained our life sentences for this stint on an exo-work team.

    We looked around, examining our home for the next four years. I could imagine I was in the American southwest. Arid land painted with pink sand. A few basalt outcroppings pointing bony fingers skyward. A wisp of high cloud, thin as spider’s silk, lacing the sky. Then I saw that dwarf sun staring down on us, casting sharp-edged shadows on the sand. A deep, dusty breath told me the oh-two was low and rain was a stranger. I flexed my legs and knew I was a bit over one gee.

    Dry, hot, heavy, and thin on oxygen. Four years. Great.

    “Fuck this,” said a big, swarthy guy about my size and a bit older, maybe thirty. Speaking first, he positioned himself as leader, so I sized him up. A human weasel: thin lips, heavy lids, black eyes that warned me not to turn my back on him.

    “So, what do we do now?” asked a pale, goofy-looking young kid with hair that jutted from his scalp like a thicket of blonde weeds.

    “Make ourselves at home,” replied the weaselly-looking guy, and led the way toward a pre-fab habitat module, half buried in the sand a few hundred meters away. Behind the hab loomed a large rectangular building, its purpose so obvious it might as well have had “Robotic Factory” stenciled on the side.

    I fell in behind the two women in our group. One was a small, firm-muscled Polynesian woman, maybe eighteen. Long black hair. Pretty. The other was a few years older and nearly matched my height and more than matched my mass. She looked pure African, black skin, black hair shaved a centimeter off her round skull, full lips and nose. She could scare the ugly off a baboon’s ass.

    The last member of our group was the largest non-mutated human I’ve ever seen. At least two-ten tall and two-ten heavy. He had that nondescript dark brown hair and light brown skin that marked him as nth generation mutt. Flat forehead, cheeks, stomach, he was an assortment of fleshy planes tossed over a substructure of muscle mass. His eyes glinted like jewels in a granite statue. This guy could enter a Neanderthal beauty pageant and not even place.

    Carrying nothing but the gray prison togs decorating our muscled bodies, we entered the hab module. Six beds jutted perpendicular to the walls, three on each side of a meter-wide aisle leading to a metal table with six metal chairs. A food processor and reclamation cabinet meant that was our kitchen. Across from that was a closet-sized room with a waist-high door. The head, no doubt. Next to that was a comm panel and small viewscreen.

    “All right!” said the Weasel. “Maybe they left us some snuff vids.” He approached the panel and pushed a button. The big square eye blinked open. A pasty-faced man with heavy jowls leered at us.

    “Welcome to . . . I guess it doesn’t matter. For the next four years this is your prison.”

    “Eat me, dough-boy,” said the black amazon.

    The recording ignored her. “The big square structure is a mineral processing and metallurgical facility. For the next fourteen hundred sixty days, you’ll wake up, eat, take a wheelbarrow, pick, and shovel from that building and proceed east—toward sunrise—about two hundred meters, where you’ll find the markers for the mine.

    “Each of you is to mine two metric tons of rock each day, to be wheeled back to the processing facility where it will be converted into finished materials for the colonists to use when they arrive after your terms are complete.”

    “Mining? Does he mean digging?”

    “Oh, this is bullshit!”

    “I ain’t hearing this. . . .”

    I kept my mouth shut and listened.

    “Anyone not meeting their daily quota gets zero food ration the next day. Exceed your limit, you get extra. Water is free.

    “Simple enough, even for you. Work and live, or don’t work and die.

    “The comm panel contains an entangled-particle beacon for emergency evacuation. If activated, a robotic ship will be dispatched to remove your team. Once sent, the recall cannot be rescinded, and the ship will arrive near sunset ten solar days later. Be ready. Your original prison sentence will be invoked upon your return. Three members are required to activate it.

    “You’ll find personal voice recorders on each of your beds. Record your impressions, unusual events, what you’re feeling, that sort of thing. Strictly voluntary, of course.”

    He smiled, flashing a row of perfect, white teeth wasted in his flesh-bag face. “Your first meals are free. See you in four years.”

    The screen blanked.

    “Hey,” the dorky blonde kid said. “What do they mean by ‘four years’? What if a year here is like a thousand Earth days, or there’s forty hours a day or something?”

    I said, “Doesn’t matter. We’re here until we’re gone.”

    Our group dissolved to the six beds and we staked our claims. No fights—nothing worth fighting over. The two women took adjacent beds on the other side of the room, the third going to the blonde kid. I stretched out on the bed between the other two men.

    “You snore, I’ll tear your throat out,” the Weasel warned. I wondered how much torque would snap his thick neck.

    The Army taught me to sleep any chance I got. I woke a couple hours later to the sound of five people eating with their mouths opens. Violent felons so rarely have good table manners.

    I swung my feet off the bed, went the food processor, and pressed my palm against the ID plate. A moment later, slices of brown “meat” shuffled down a chute onto the top of a stack of plates. Some colorful, glistening chunks joined it, then a green, steaming weed slithered onto the edge of the plate. Water dribbled into a glass. Dinner was served.

    I sat at the last empty chair, wedging in between the huge, quiet guy and the black amazon. The weaselly guy was talking, which didn’t surprise me.

    “It’s fuckin’ stupid! Spend a goddamned fortune to fly us out here to do a job robots could do better and cheaper. Someone’s got their head up their ass.”

    The dorky kid shrugged. “It’s tradition. Prisoners of war, criminals, have always been put to manual labor.”

    “You’re both wrong,” I said between bites. Everyone turned to me except the Giant, who ate as though his synapses would overload if he attempted more than one activity at a time.

    “Is that fuckin’ right?”

    “Yeah, Weasel, it is.” Several people chuckled at his christening. The Weasel looked hard at me, but decided he didn’t want his ass kicked just then. “We’re lab rats.”

    “Lab rats?” the kid asked.

    “That’s right, Dork.” He reddened, but didn’t even think about doing more than that. “This planet is ready for colonization. Air, gravity, temperature—all the stuff a probe can tell you. We’re here to verify the rest.”

    The Weasel snorted. “Like what?”

    “Like disease.” Everyone sat very still, except the Giant, who kept slurping away. “Or animals, poisons, anything else possibly missed by a quick probe.” I took another bite and chewed it before continuing. “It takes years before some things show up. So, they stick some sad-ass cattle like us here and see if we die. If we survive for four years, then it’s probably safe for real people.”

    After a few seconds, the Weasel snorted again. “Bullshit. You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” He turned back to his food and said nothing else for a long time.

    “Can they figure that kind of thing out from just the six of us?” the Dork asked.

    “Who says it’s just us? There could be thousands of other sorry fools scattered over this rock. We’d never know.”

    More silence. My words were probably as hard to digest as the crap on our plates, and left as bad a taste. “So, what do you think our chances are?” the black Amazon asked.

    “Of surviving? Don’t know. Lower than in prison. But if we do, we’re out in four.”

    The Weasel ventured back into the conversation. “Well, fuck ‘em, I say. I ain’t gonna load rock for four years. I’m walkin’ out.”

    The others looked at me. The jockeying was already over; I was the leader. “Where you going?”

    “I dunno. Anywhere.”

    “Maybe you’ve got bad eyesight. There’s nothing but sand and rock out there. You’ll be dead of thirst in a couple of days. Food, water—you want it, it’s here. You leave, you die.”

    “Better’n working my ass off for four years, waiting to catch Martian herpes or something. ‘Exo-work team.’ Fuck. I thought we were going to be gardening!” He picked up his plate and dumped it in the recycle bin, then stalked over to his bed and dropped onto it like a falling tree.

    The Amazon carried her half-full plate to the recycler, then headed for her own bed. I looked across the table to the other woman. She stared back at me with beautiful, huge eyes the color of chestnuts. Eyes of depth, but soulless as an ice cavern. She was dead, but hadn’t yet figured that out.

    I cleaned the last of the semi-organic goo from my plate, tossed it in the recycler, used the head, then climbed into bed, between sheets textured like fine grit sandpaper. I had a feeling we had a hard day waiting for us.

    A sound woke me in the middle of night. I held my breath, listening. Softly, I could make out the pulse of labored breathing. Raising myself on an elbow, I saw the lithe silhouette of the Polynesian woman splayed over the Giant, who lay on his back in his bunk.

    I grinned. “Slut,” I whispered and rolled back into sleep.

    * * *​

    The sunlight slanting through open storm shutters dragged me to consciousness. The Weasel and the Slut were standing naked in front of the head, arguing over the shower. The Giant pushed between them like a silent ship between two barking seals, stripping as he went. I started with breakfast: yellow glop that looked and tasted like snot-coated rubber.

    After breakfast, I found a room that housed clean sheets, work coveralls, toothbrushes, drinking glasses, etc., plus a recycler to keep it all clean. Unfortunately, it held no deodorant or mouthwash.

    Eventually, we all headed over to the factory, where we found a storage room containing picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and other state-of-the-art nineteenth century tools. We loaded tools into wheelbarrows and headed out.

    “How the fuck does this work?” asked the Weasel.

    The Amazon answered. “It’s a robotic fabrication plant. I helped deploy them in the Corps. You feed it raw mineral, it shits out useful goods into a storage area: trusses, beams, water, whatever’s in the soil. Some kind of nanotech.”

    The Amazon opened a wide sliding door, revealing a keypad on a trough-shaped conveyer leading into a black, square maw. She pressed a big button marked “Activate.”

    It spoke to us. “Fabrication cycle initiated. Material is loaded onto the conveyor. After loading, enter your code number for the next day’s accreditation. Names and code numbers follow: Miguel Hernandez, one; Khali Shukar, two; Adrienne Kelemani, three; Markus Constapolous, four; Felix Mather, five; Giger Redfeather, six. Food quota requirement is two metric tons. Facility is now activated.”

    Our situation was as obvious as a knife in the gut; feed the machine two tons of rock if you wanted to eat.

    We pushed our barrows toward the dig—a circular area marked by strobe poles, two hundred meters toward the rising sun.

    Describing one day describes them all. We settled into a wake-up routine of showering/eating/shitting we could all live with, then walked through the warm, cloudless mornings to the dig. Most of it was pick-work, chipping out pieces of the planet’s bone wheel back to the processor. We’d dump our loads, press our number, and go back. When we got tired, we rested. When we hungered, we ate—if we had met our quota the previous day. The processor didn’t give running totals; when we reached our quotas, it chimed a stupid tune.

    Four men, two women can lead to some varied unions, but not here. One morning I found the Dork in the bed next to mine, wrapped around the Weasel. Well, no accounting for taste. The Slut and Giant were pretty regular, and it had a certain largest-smallest symmetry. I admired her for not splitting in half. That left the Amazon and me, but I go for the lookers, and in that department, even the Giant rated over her.

    That first day, we discovered the Slut could outwork any of us, except maybe the Giant. They finished a couple of hours before dark. Me, Amazon, and the Weasel chimed out just after sunset. The Dork whined and struggled, finally coming in well after dark.

    After dinner, I strolled outside. I pushed through the night air, warm as a lover’s breath, until I was out of earshot of Weasel & Company. I lay back on the warm sand, stretched my aching arms and legs and staring upward. No moon that I could see; this rock probably wasn’t imaginative enough to have one. Directly overhead, the pale Milky Way looked like it does most everywhere. Not many stars otherwise, just a few clusters that might look like something to someone who cared about such things. I figured we were near the galactic equator, out toward the rim. Along with about a thousand other habitable planets.

    Assuming, of course, this one was.

    A lithe, dark shaped appeared next to me. In the faint starlight I recognized the slender form of the Slut. She said nothing, slipping silently as a shadow into a sitting yoga position.

    We rested there, two mute souls on Hell’s doorstep. I watched the stars rotate, picked out one that might be due north, and tried to estimate the others’ rate of motion. I guessed our day was close to thirty hours. Not that it mattered.

    After an hour or so, the Slut suddenly whispered, “Do you know where we are?”

    I shook my head. “No idea.”

    She turned to me. “I think we are already dead.” She stood and slipped away like a sigh.

    * * *​

    It didn’t take long for the Weasel to live up to his name. Late on the third afternoon, the Amazon and I were rolling up to the ‘bot with our loads. The Weasel stood there scowling at the control panel. I rolled the barrow over to the low loading bin and dumped it. The conveyor growled to life, pulling the meal into its square mouth. I started toward the panel.

    “Hey, are you number four?” the Weasel asked.

    I stopped. “What about it?”

    “I’m number one. I accidentally pressed your button and gave you credit for my load.” He pressed the “One” button. “I think your load was smaller than mine was, but don’t worry about it.” He started past me.

    I put my hand on his throat.

    “What? I made an honest mistake, now we’re even.”

    The Amazon wasn’t taking sides; she just watched, waiting for us to settle it and get out of her way.

    I grabbed his right hand, pulled his thumb against his palm, leaving his other fingers extended. “Watch carefully. This is ‘four’—my number.” With my other hand, I pulled three of his fingers down, leaving only his index finger extended. “This is ‘one’—your number.”

    He tried to pull away. “Yeah, I got it.”

    “Let’s be sure.” I grabbed the finger and pulled it out of its socket.

    The Weasel had good lungs. His scream brought everyone’s heads up out at the dig. He gasped, moaned, twisted, slid to his knees, staring at his dislocated finger.

    I leaned toward his sweat-streamed, contorted face. “Finish my shift for me, and I’ll put you back like I found you. Deal?”

    I twisted his finger back and forth a bit to help him decide. “D . . . deal. . . .”

    With one hard snap, I put his finger back in place. I think his second yell outdid the first. He slumped onto the floor, pale, gasping, reeking of sweat and cowardice.

    The Amazon leaned over him. “You try that shit on me, I’ll break your arm off fuck you with it.”

    The Weasel crawled back to his feet, grabbed his barrow with his left hand, and pushed it quickly toward the dig. I grinned at the Amazon. “I’m starting to like you.”

    She grinned back, teeth gleaming in her obsidian face. “Feeling’s mutual, Handsome.”

    * * *​

    Hell came down on us a few months after we arrived. The Weasel had been whining for days about his back hurting. His eyes grew bloodshot. He claimed his joints ached, his head throbbed and thrummed, his throat burned.

    Cry us a fucking river.

    He started missing quotas. That didn’t surprise me, except that he didn’t try to scam us out of ours. In fact, he became sullen, withdrawn. If it hadn’t been such a welcome change, we might have been worried. I just figured he’d had a “who’s on top” fight with the Dork.

    One morning, I found the Weasel leaning against his shovel taking his tenth break of the day. If he didn’t pick it up, he was going to miss his quota again.

    I touched his shoulder. “Hey—“

    The Weasel spun around, knocking my hand away. He glared at me, his eyes completely red except for black centers that fixed on me. Demon eyes.

    He swung his shovel wildly at me. I jumped back, the blade whistling a finger’s width from my throat. Before he could swing it back, I lunged into him, driving him down onto the hot, broken rocks hard enough the air grunted out of his lungs.

    I stood up, dragging him with me, ready to finally kick his ass sideways. I slammed my fist into his face. He spun and fell back onto the rocks. I waited for him to come back for more.

    He crawled up onto his knees, breathing in wet, ragged gasps, then stood and faced me.

    Blood streamed from his nose. It washed over his lips, painted his teeth, streamed down his shirt, splattered on the ground. A crimson river—a waterfall—glistening in the white sunlight.

    “Christ!” I stepped back. The blood kept gushing from his nostrils. The Weasel grinned at me with red teeth, then staggered out of the pit. I stared at the sparkling reddish trail he left behind.

    “He’s a fuckin’ bleeder,” the Amazon said.

    I nodded. “Yeah,” I croaked, suddenly shivering in the suffocating heat.

    * * *​

    At lunch, we returned to the hab. We found the Weasel sitting on his bed, chin on his chest, his shirt a tunic of matted blood. His feet rested in a black-red pool.

    I stepped slowly toward him. “Weasel?”

    Slowly, his head tipped up. His red eyes stared toward me at nothing. He had aged thirty years: his jowls hung loose and full, his eyelids baggy. His slack mouth drooled red-tinted saliva. Green-yellow fluid trickled from his eyes, oozed from his ears.

    Shock stole my breath. As if answering some distant call, he pushed himself to his feet, then staggered toward the door.

    I stepped back, thinking I should help him but deflected by terror and loathing. Swaying, lurching, he dragged one foot in front of the other. The others stepped aside, and the Weasel passed through the doorway.

    He stopped. The Slut stood nearest him. She extended her slender hand and touched his arm. He turned to her, cocked his head to the side like a bird examining a worm. His knees buckled, he fell forward, grabbing the front of the Slut’s shirt and pulling her to her knees with him.

    She grabbed his wrists. Layers of white skin peeled off in her hands, exposing raw, scalded-looking flesh beneath. Black-red vomit erupted from his mouth, drenching them both. She screamed, tore herself free and backed away, staring at the thick red mucous pasting her blouse against her slim chest, the parchments of raw skin still in her hands.

    The Weasel fell over, retching volumes of black-red fluid. His legs scrabbled in the sand like those of a dying lizard. He rolled onto his face, still retching impossible quantities of the blood-vomit. He began convulsing. A tearing sound ripped from him, and a black stain blossomed at the seat of his pants, soaking through and dripping onto the ground. He now lay in a pool, an ocean of thick fluid, twitching and squirming, clumps of clotted sand sticking to him.

    He gurgled, rasped, then his limbs twitched violently, and he lay still in the spreading pool of his own life-blood.

    The Weasel was dead.

    * * *​

    No one had much appetite that night, except the Giant. If he hadn’t felt like eating I would have known the laws of the Universe had been repealed.

    We sat around the table, staring at our glop, instinctively shouldered together to put as much space as possible between us and the Weasel’s empty chair. The only sound was the scritch of the Giant’s knife and fork.

    Burying him had been an ordeal. No one had wanted to get near the SOB when he was alive, much less now that he was a bag of leaking blood and shit. Finally, we dug a shallow grave. Using our shovels to carry his bedding and clothes, we dumped them into it, rolling him on top and covering it all with sand. The only comment came from the Dork, who said, “I let that bastard fuck me!”

    Ah, true love.

    Now, at dinner, the silence swelled around us like an incoming wave, until finally, it broke.

    “What killed him?” The Slut, normally stoic, now the first to speak. And I knew why. The image of her struggling with him, coated in his vomited blood burned in my mind.

    “I said, what the fuck killed him?” Her voiced jumped several dB and half an octave.

    The Giant just kept eating. Scritch, scritch.

    “Who knows,” I muttered.

    “Maybe it was some kind of injury,” she said, her voice pathetically hopeful.

    I nodded. “Sure.”

    “Bullshit!” the Dork cried. “You saw him, you all did. That was no injury!”

    I’ve never torn out someone’s tongue; I wondered how to go about it.

    “Shut up, Dork,” the Amazon warned.

    “It couldn’t have been an injury! He—“

    “I said shut the fuck up! Unless you want your goddamn face torn off and fed to you.”

    The Dork looked terrified, maybe of whatever killed the Weasel, maybe of getting the shit kicked out of him by the Amazon. “Let it go, Dork, or I’ll hold you while she does it.”

    Scritch, scritch.

    The Dork glared at me, but said nothing. He pushed away from the table and stood up so fast his chair toppled over. He stripped, climbed into his bunk and pulled the sheet over his head. He lay with his back to the Weasel’s empty bunk.

    Scritch, scritch.

    * * *​

    It took a couple of weeks.

    The Slut hadn’t spoken since the night the Weasel dissolved. She worked harder than ever, harder than any of us, harder than the Giant. She dug, wheeled, loaded, dug, wheeled, loaded, chiming out her quota by mid-day, but kept going. She stayed to herself, never even visiting the Giant’s bed. Only once, near the end, did her gaze sweep over my face. Her eyes looked like they came from a taxidermist. If they were soulless before, they were sterile now.

    And completely bloodshot.

    That night, she tossed, turned, rolled, crawled in her bunk. I watched her. She squeezed the temples, rubbed the back of her scalp, pounded her forehead, all without making a sound.

    I lay back, more scared than I’ve ever been in my life.

    My eyes popped open, before I realized I’d fallen asleep. I sat up, blinking my eyes into focus. The Slut was gone. So was the Giant. I pulled off my covers and walked naked to the door. Pulling it quietly open, I looked out.

    A huge silhouette approached me. The Giant stopped inside the door, looked at me briefly, then walked to the bathroom. I heard him wash his hands. He came out, crawled into his bed, and fell to snoring.

    God almighty, I thought.

    His face had been streaked with tears.

    * * *​

    We found her the next day, at the bottom of the pit, her neck broken.

    “What the fuck was she doing out here at night?” asked the Dork with characteristic compassion. “She fell and broke her fucking neck.”

    The Amazon shook her head. “No way. The pit ain’t that deep. Besides, look—“

    “She fell,” I interrupted.

    The Amazon scowled at me, but let it go. The Giant stood separate from the three of us, staring at the Slut’s broken body. Finally, he stepped into the pit, lifted her lightly, and carried her away. He returned for his shovel, but we never saw where he buried her.

    * * *​

    Over the next weeks, we showered separately, ate separately, dug in four separate corners as though we were turning our pit into four private graves. Occasionally, I caught the Amazon or the Dork glancing at the Recall panel. It loomed in our thoughts, day and night, working or eating—waiting to steal the remaining decades of our lives.

    I don’t know if the Amazon or Dork ever figured out what had been going on with the Slut. Probably. But we never talked about it; the silence was a life-line of denial we all clung to.

    Then one night, something jolted me out of sleep. Cold, wet, crawling up my leg. I lay still, not wanting to scare it into biting me. I hadn’t seen any bugs on this planet larger than a mote, but this thing was big. It was nearly to my crotch. I sensed something rising next to my bed.

    “It’s me,” a voice whispered.

    The Dork! Jesus Fucking Christ! I slapped his hand away. “What’s the matter with you?” I whispered.

    “Can I come over? Join you?”

    “Fuck no!” I stared at his face. I couldn’t see much in the dim light thrown by the dials and controls on the walls. His eyes were open wide, pleading. I could smell his sweat. He put his cold, trembling hand on my arm. His terror sparked against my flesh like static electricity.

    I jerked away. “I’m sorry about the Weasel. And the Slut. Go back to bed. We’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.”

    He clenched his eyes shut, pressed both hands to his temples, squeezed till I thought his skull would split. A moan slipped from his mouth. He blinked at me, licked his lips. Suddenly, he lunged forward, kissed me once, hard, then pulled away and returned to his bunk.

    My heart pounded. A month earlier, I would have beaten the shit out of him, but instead I just shut my eyes against the night, against this world, against this life.

    It took me an hour to get back to sleep. Then I dreamed I was struggling against a tide that wrapped strong watery arms around me and pulled me away from shore. But the sea wasn’t water; it was blood.

    * * *​

    The Dork stayed in bed the next morning. When I tried to rouse him, he pulled the covers over his head. “Leave me the fuck alone!” he shouted, the blanket muffling his words. “I feel like shit. Tell the boss I’m taking a sick day.” He laughed, squealing like a tropical bird in the jaws of a snake. His hand moved beneath the blanket, massaging the back of his head.

    “Let’s go,” I said to the others. We headed out and worked our three corners. At mid-day, the Amazon and I headed back for lunch, walking our barrows to the beat of the Giant’s pick behind us, striking the same note out of the rock, over and over and over.

    The Amazon was still dropping her load in the processor when I stepped into the bunkhouse. Something raced at my face. I ducked, instinctively leaning into it. The shovel-blade passed just behind my head, but the shaft caught my left temple and sent me sprawling. I rolled to my feet as the blade clanged on the floor behind me.

    The Dork stared at me, his brown eyes floating on crimson globes beneath fat, drooping lids. Weaving the shovel like a saber, he gasped in shallow, rapid breaths. “We gotta get outta here!”

    I nodded. “Sure, Dork. We—“

    “Don’t call me that!” He swung the shovel again. I stepped inside the swing, grabbed the handle and twisted it from his grip, simultaneously swinging the blade end into his face. His head snapped and he stumbled back. I held my distance, watching blood gush in red streams from his busted mouth.

    “Bastard,” he rasped, the word bubbling between his lips. He leaped on me like a fucking leopard, driving me back until my legs banged against a bunk. I was bigger and stronger, but he had the inspiration of madness. He leaned into me, red teeth grinning centimeters from my face. I lost my balance, fell over the bed onto the floor, the Dork pinning me full-body, leering into my eyes.

    Something dark streaked across the room. Black, muscle-roped forearms pulled the Dork from me as though he were a kitten. Like some kind of homicidal magician, the Amazon did something with her hands, and the Dork’s head snapped unnaturally to the side. He stared at me, astonished to be dead, then slumped to the floor.

    I stood up, wavering, pain lacing my left temple. Rubbing it, I sat on the bunk I had tripped over, afraid to lower my hand from the injury, afraid of what I might find.

    The Amazon stared at the young blonde corpse. “Guess he had it, huh?”

    I nodded, the movement sending snakes of bright pain slithering inside my skull. “Virus, probably. Don’t touch him, especially the blood.”

    “Don’t worry.” She walked over to the med kit, mounted on the wall by the comm panel.

    The bunkhouse darkened. I looked up to see the doorway filled with the Giant’s silhouette. He ducked inside, walked over. Examining the scene impassively, he nodded once.

    The Amazon returned. She gently pulled my hand away from my head. “Let me see, sugar.” Coarse fingers deftly searched my scalp. Had to give her credit; I’m not sure I would have done the same for her. She nodded. “Didn’t break the skin. Gonna have you a nasty egg up there, though.”

    I grinned, relieved. She pressed a cold compress to my temple. I saw her glance sideways at the Recall panel.

    “What are you thinking?” I asked.

    “About surviving. I’m always thinking about surviving, Handsome.”

    I looked at it too, across the room, watching us. Waiting. “It takes three of us.”

    She nodded. “And there are only three of us left.”

    I thought about it, looked around the room, at the Dork’s body, then at the three empty bunks that he, the Slut, and the Weasel would never rest in again. Then I looked up at the Giant. He followed my glance to the panel, then back to the Dork, then back to us.

    We waited. He just watched us. Maybe some kind of brain activity was at work in that huge head of his. Finally, he nodded once.

    I wavered to my feet, then walked with my companions to the wall. “So, how do we do this, Handsome?”

    I opened the panel with “Recall” stenciled on it in red letters. Inside, a small keyboard and screen faced me. I pressed a button labeled “Activate.” Words came on the screen asking for my full name. I typed it in. It then asked if I wished to send the recall request. I didn’t care for the word “request,” but pressed Yes. Then it asked for the name of the person I’d killed.

    Bastards. Of all the things they could have used for identification, they chose one to remind us why we were there. I typed in his name. The screen read, “Accepted. Next evacuee’s name?”

    The Amazon entered her information, then the Giant. Finally, the screen read: “Recall sent. Evacuation at sunset, ten days.” The screen went blank.

    We looked at each other, saying nothing for a moment. We were going home.

    Home? Prison.

    I mentally inventoried our lives—the hab, the factory, the goddamned pit. The graves. I looked at my companions. “Ten days. We can stay and shovel rock like slaves while we wait to die . . .”

    “Or?”

    “Or we get the fuck out. If we survive ten days, we’ll come back.”

    The Amazon frowned. “What if we don’t?”

    “Then at least we die free, fighting to live. Not digging one big fucking grave, waiting to—“ I looked down at the Dork.

    Again, the Giant nodded once. The Amazon smiled. “Let’s go.”

    I started toward the door. A hand the size of a dinner plate pressed into my chest. I looked up into the Giant’s dark, stoic eyes. He tipped his head toward the Dork. “First,” he said, “we bury him.”

    “What? Why? He’s still gonna be dead when we get back, whether he’s here or in the ground.”

    “We bury him.”

    Ever argue with a granite cliff? We buried him.

    Standing by the grave, I examined my hands and clothes for the hundredth time, making sure I hadn’t gotten any blood on me. The Giant lowered his head. I waited, looking at the shallow grave we had carved into the ground adjacent to the Weasel’s. Together for eternity.

    The Giant raised his head. Service ended.

    We fashioned backpacks from some sheets, tossed in some knives, clothing, what food we had coming, then drank as much water as our bellies would hold. We poured more into cups we capped with cloth and thread and stuffed in our packs. About three hours prior to sunset, we started out.

    “Where do we go, Handsome?” asked the Amazon.

    I scanned the flat horizon. “That way,” I said, pointing west.

    She followed my gesture, frowning. “Why?”

    “Because it’s the way I’m facing.”

    We turned our backs to Death, and walked away.

    * * *​

    Months of hard labor had toughened us, and we made good time. With each stride, each meter between us and that death-hole, our spirits rose. If the disease was a local phenomenon, if none of us yet had it, if we could find food, water, shelter, then each step took us further into a new life.

    If . . .

    After several kilometers, we began to pass stunted little trees. A good sign. Even those dry twigs must suck water out of someplace. At nightfall, we stopped in the “shelter” of a big rock.

    “Probably get our first storm of the year tonight,” the Amazon said.

    “Pessimist. You remind me of the Weasel.” She stripped her top off to change into a dry shirt for the night. I stared at her breasts, dark, full, nipples almost black. I smiled. “Well, in some ways.”

    She laughed loud and long, as relieved as I to be out of the compound. We might die of thirst in two days, but by fuck, we were doing something besides loading rock and waiting to die.

    We found an armful of tinder and a few dead scrub trees, then scratched around for a couple of rocks that would spark when struck. Eventually, we had a nice blaze tickling the darkness. The Giant and the Amazon sat quietly, staring at the flames, their faces and eyes blood-red in the flickering glow. A chill skated down my spine.

    The Amazon began to hum, her body rocking slowly in rhythm. Suddenly, she burst into song:

    Don’t need no Mama, don’t got no Dad.

    The Corps keeps me fed and keeps me clad.

    Space Force jocks—just spineless brass.

    And Army pussies kiss my ass.

    Beyond the Rim and throughout time,

    I belong; the Corps is mine.

    She laughed again, threw some more tinder on the fire, which crackled laughter with her. We sat, three living statues warmed by the fire and by each others’ presence.

    “Know any songs, Handsome?”

    I shook my head.

    “C’mon, man. Singing! It’s the sound of freedom. A few months ago, I was rotting away a lifetime prison sentence. Now I’m under the stars, breathing air ain’t never been breathed before. Sing with me, Handsome! “

    “You hear me sing, you and the Giant will be fighting over the right to tear out my vocal cords.”

    The Giant said nothing. He stared at the fire as though listening to some private epiphany being spoken to him by the flames. Finally, he stood up.

    “I’m going for a walk,” he said.

    The Amazon and I stared at each other in amazement. This man spoke maybe every other week. You’d think he would have had something more interesting to announce.

    He slipped into the night, his shadow joining the darkness of this world. The Amazon and I were alone.

    We let the night settle, each walking the path of our own thoughts. Sparks popped and snapped, rising into the night and disappearing like heaven-bound souls.

    “Why haven’t we gotten it?” the Amazon finally asked, barely above a whisper.

    “Maybe we—“ I started to say that maybe we had, but stopped myself. “Maybe we’re immune,” I offered instead.

    “Immune!” The Amazon laughed. “Wouldn’t that be something? Immune.” Still chuckling, she fed another branch to the flames. After a moment, she asked, “How’d you end up here, Handsome?”

    I smiled into the flames. “Same way you did, I suppose. I fucked up.”

    “Yeah, but how?”

    I watched the flames entwining like hurried lovers. What the fuck. “I killed someone. A drunk. Came at me with a knife. I took it from him, and lodged it in his throat.”

    “That’s the last page. What’s the story? Why were you there, where you were, in a place where you would kill a man?”

    I watched the flame-lovers some more, then realized I was talking. “When I was ten, I challenged a friend of mine, Danny Jacobi, to a race on our scooters. We tried to beat a mag-lev to a crossing. I made it. Danny didn’t. Severed his legs at the hip. He screamed and screamed, until he had no breath. I just stood there, frozen, staring at the blood. You wouldn’t believe how much blood can pour out of a body that small.”

    The fire popped, sending a new cloud of souls heavenward.

    “In the army, I was in deep space on EVA maneuvers with my squad. I screwed up my air mix. Our sergeant, a small, tough woman named Yukoshi, jetted over to help. Two meters from me, she got in the way of a tiny, passing meteoroid. It punched a hole in her suit no bigger than my finger. She didn’t panic, just grabbed at the tear, trying to hold it closed—till she went into convulsions and died. Right in front of me. Because of my fucking air mix.

    “If good people can die, why should a goddamn drunk with a knife live? I was just evening the score.”

    I knew she was staring at me, those walnut eyes peeling the skin off my life, looking at the bones underneath. Leave it there, Amazon.

    She didn’t.

    “No, that ain’t all. You’ve seen death, but that doesn’t put a man like you in a sleaze bar, with enough fire in your veins to murder a man.”

    I picked up a thick branch, broke it with my hands and fed its body to the flames. Watching the fire, I realized there are two kinds of death: one you can see, touch, smell—like we had walked away from that morning. But there’s another kind you carry with you. It creeps through your dreams, corrupts your humanity, kills you long before you die.

    “After my tour of duty, I became a bodyguard. Easy work, good pay. Most of my clients were spoiled asswipes who wanted muscle around to feed their ego trip.

    “Not all of them, though.

    “I had this client, Ms. Harrison—real nice older lady. Afraid her ex- was gonna come knock her door down, strangle her in her sleep. After a few weeks, it became apparent Mr. Harrington wasn’t interested, but she kept me on. Liked my company, I think. Like I said, nice lady.”

    The demons in the fire were no longer copulating. They whirled, laughed, danced, mocked me from their womb of fire.

    “What happened?” the Amazon asked, in the softest voice I ever heard her use.

    I leaned closer to the fire. The flame filled my vision. A firestorm—ravenous, devouring, pulling the breath from my lungs, tearing out words I could not stop.

    “We were walking out of her house, just like we’d done a hundred times before. Something caught my eye. It was him, about ten meters away, pistol raised. I drew fast, but too late. He fired one shot before I blew his fucking head off. Luck or skill, I don’t know, but he spiked her right in the chest.

    “It took her a couple of minutes to die. She couldn’t talk, just stared at me with big, sad eyes. I watched her life dry up and blow away, until those eyes were just two dull, glass spheres.

    “I wasn’t fast enough, and she died.”

    The demons crackled laughter at my lie. The fire gleamed, flickered, expanded, coaxing me even closer. It seemed an inferno, the center pyre of hell, reaching out to blacken my bones with its touch. The heat licked my face.

    “Handsome.” The Amazon’s word pulled me back; the night air cooled my sweat-soaked back. “That wasn’t it, was it?”

    The demons’ laughter died, their work done, my secret revealed in this alien night. It was just a fire once more; a small blaze lighting an abyss between lost souls.

    “No.” I finally whispered. “I could have taken the bullet. I could have stepped in front of her and taken it. That was job, my promise. And the whole time the bastard was aiming and pulling the trigger, while I was pulling my own gun, I knew I could have saved her. But I didn’t.

    “I didn’t, and she’s dead. They’re all dead.”

    Something pressed against my shoulder. Fingers stroked my hair. I turned, buried my face in her neck, grabbed her, pressed myself tight to her—and tried to remember how to cry.

    “Something you need to know about guilt, Handsome: it lives inside us, eatin’ away our soul till we ain’t nothing but a walking jumble of blood and bone. You gotta figure out how to get rid of it. Be human again. And the first step is realizing there ain’t nothing wrong with surviving.”

    Not true. Survival isn’t everything they say it is.

    “Besides,” she continued. “If you had taken that bullet, you wouldn’t be here with me—Adam and Eve in fucking paradise.”

    I laughed, and the tears finally came. She held me as they trickled down my face, cooled, dried, disappearing into the alien air. She pulled away to arm’s length and looked at me with eyes soft and brown. Her features, limned by the firelight, carved themselves into my mind: her large round head, thick lips, heavy brow, crinkly black hair, dirt-crusted brown skin. She was beautiful.

    I pulled her to me, pressed my lips to hers, felt her muscles flex as she wrapped me in her arms. I pushed her onto her back, felt her body, her soul, opening to engulf me, swallowing me and taking me far from this place of sorrow.

    * * *​

    We woke with sunlight bleeding over the horizon. The Giant had not returned.

    “Fucker,” the Amazon muttered. “Probably afraid we would contaminate him.”

    I could hardly blame him. We stood, stretched, relieved ourselves immodestly, then headed off.

    Another few kilometers and the trees grew closer, scrub grass appeared, and soon we heard musical trickling. Sound travels well on this world; it took us another hour or so to reach the stream, chuckling at us in its flat, shallow bed.

    After long, noisy drinks, we sat on the stream’s edge, our bare feet cooling in the water, completely sated. Aquatically, anyway.

    “This’ll buy us a few days,” I said, squinting at the local plant-life. “But we’re still going to need food. Meanwhile . . .” I pulled off my clothes, stood to my full height, and belly-flopped into the shallow stream.

    “Jesus!” The Amazon yelled, breaking into laughter.

    I rolled onto my back, letting the current carry me slowly downstream.

    She paced me along the shore, shedding clothes as she went. “Roll over, Handsome. If you get it sunburned, you’ll be no damned good to me at all!”

    “Wanna bet?” I wiggled my tongue at her.

    Laughing, she leapt into the creek, throwing warm water over my face. Two thick, slippery pythons slid around my neck, pulling me toward shore. Wet, snake-smooth skin pressed me into the wet sand. I wrapped both arms around her, pulling her muscled weight on top of me. My legs were still in the creek, and the rushing water was soon unnoticed in the flood of passion roiling through my flesh.

    We finished, and the Amazon slid down me and into the creek, letting the clear water wash her. I sat up and grimaced; something had been digging into my back, but I had been too far gone to notice.

    I turned and pulled a fist-sized object from the Handsome-shaped indentation in the sand. I squeezed my fingers into it and light purple juice trickled between my fingers.

    “Whatcha got, Stud?” The Amazon climbed toward me.

    “Some kind of vegetable or tuber, maybe.” I rinsed it off in the creek. It looked like a misshapened turnip. I hesitated, half of me suddenly ravenous; half wondering how death by poisoning felt.

    The Amazon snatched it from me and bit off a huge mouthful.

    “No!” I tried to slap it from her, but she lunged backward, splashing into the water, grinning and chewing. “What the hell are you doing?” I shouted. “It could be poisonous!”

    She shrugged her brown, muscled shoulders and swallowed. “Guess we’ll know soon.”

    I stood, trembling with rage. “Goddamn it! What’s the matter with you?”

    She rolled those big eyes. “What is it about a good fuck that makes men go stupid? Look, Handsome, either it’s edible, or it ain’t. No way we’re going to find out, except the old fashioned way. I’d rather get poisoned than starve; shows I’m still fighting.”

    I stared at her for a moment. She took another bite.

    “Well?” I finally asked. “You going to tell me how it tastes?”

    Again, that wide, beautiful grin. “Like chicken.”

    * * *​

    The turnips grew all along the bank. I waited a couple hours to be sure the Amazon wasn’t going to turn into a huddled, puking mess before I tried one. She had already eaten half a dozen.

    Didn’t taste like chicken. Tasted like freedom.

    We rinsed our clothes, hung them over some low limbs of the stunted little scrubs this world calls trees, and crawled into the limited shadow underneath. There wasn’t much room, but neither of us minded lying braided together.

    “Your turn,” I whispered.

    “Handsome, I don’t think you’re up to the challenge.”

    I let the silence settle back over us like a startled bird returning to roost. “That’s not what I meant.”

    A long silence. “Yeah, I figured,” she whispered.

    It’s hard to judge time without a watch, on a world where you don’t even know how long the day is. But after a while, ten minutes or an hour, she said, “I killed an animal.”

    I frowned, opened my mouth . . . then closed it again. I waited.

    Another hour. “Oldest fucking story there is. My mama, she ran off from the bastard who pregged her with me. He used to beat her something fierce, and she was afraid he’d kill the baby, before I ever saw the light of morning.

    “But they say until you fix whatever’s wrong inside you, what it was that hooked you up with someone like that, you just keep going back. Like a chained dog, running and running, but always ending up where you started.

    “Maybe so. She settled in with another man. He beat her, too, only not so much. Not enough to lose the baby. Unfortunately.”

    “No, he wouldn’t want her to lose the baby. Not if there was a chance I was gonna be a girl. A sweet, delicious young thing; tastier than chocolate pudding, as he used to tell me.”

    I closed my eyes.

    “My mama knew what he did to me, but she was afraid. Didn’t want to be alone, not with a bastard kid. ‘Don’t worry, darlin,’ she would tell me. ‘It’s just what men do.’

    “I figured it was my fault, why he was there, why my mama had to take all those beatings. So my tenth birthday, I got the fuck out. Streeted for a while. Did some short time, juvey stuff. When I got out, I joined the Marines. That’s when I got the word my mama killed herself.”

    My muscles knotted. She melted under them, dissolving into tender flesh, quiet blood. No longer the hard, efficient killing machine; just another soul trying to survive.

    “It had been near ten years; hell, I didn’t even go to the funeral. Spent a tour hopping systems before coming back. Honorably discharged, if you can believe that.

    “After I’d been dirtside a few months, I had to go back . . . back to that place God never walked, that trap my mama and I had finally escaped. Just wanted to stand in front of it and know I had the freedom to turn and walk away.”

    She stopped, but it was too late. The shell had been cracked; the creature within would now emerge, to live or die in the light.

    “The house was still small and dirty, in a neighborhood that could still go either way, but hadn’t decided. I stood in front, staring at it, never thinking the bastard might still live there.

    “He did. After a while, he came out, some strung-out blonde woman hanging on his arm. Bastard didn’t even recognize me.

    “When they passed, I saw a girl walkin’ right behind them. Nine, maybe. Long blonde hair, cute beyond tomorrow. She looked at me with blue eyes that were dull little mirrors, letting nothing in, nothing out, reflecting back the horror she calls life.

    “I knew then: it hadn’t been my fault, what he did to me and my mama. The chains fell and I was truly free.”

    A long silence, then the Amazon’s breath whispered, “You ever hear of bilecheron?”

    The sudden question startled me. I told her I hadn’t.

    “It’s an anticoagulant,” she explained. “Keeps you bleeding. I learned about it in the Corps. I scored some and came back that night.

    “I cracked the bastard’s head against a wall, then tied and gagged his new bitch, dragged her by the hair into the daughter’s room—my old room. I brought him in, too, tied him to a chair, naked, and woke him up.

    “I told the little girl she ought to leave. But she didn’t. Just looked at me, then turned toward him and watched.

    “I had gagged the bastard, but he squirmed and yelled and glared at me. I leaned over him and said, ‘What’s the matter? Don’t you like chocolate puddin’ any more?’ “

    The Amazon shook with suppressed laughter. “God above, you should have seen his eyes, Handsome. Thought they was going to pop out of his skull and roll away! I never woulda thought they could get any wider—but they did when I pulled out the knife.

    “I laid it across his lap, took the hypo out of my pocket, and sprayed it into his neck. Within a few seconds, it was flowing like sorrow itself through his veins.

    “I picked up the knife, and turned back to the girl. She stared at me with those blue mirrors. I turned back to him, watched his little cock trying to crawl back inside him like some freaked-out turtle. Then I went to work.

    “Didn’t really carve him up, at least not above the waist. But I did some good work down under. After I finished, I watched his life flow out of his dick, and I thought about how it had pulled the life out of me. Seemed appropriate, you know?

    “Anyway, he whimpered and bled and finally died, and that little girl watched the whole thing. Never turned, never smiled, never winced. Just watched.

    “I told the bitch to take care of her little girl or I’d be back. Then I left. The girl watched me go, not even blinking, but just as I turned away, I thought something moved behind those mirrors. At least, I hope I did.”

    We lay in silence, the shadow of the tree now long enough to shield both of us. I realized I had pulled away from everywhere our bodies touched, repelled as though we were magnetized with like charge. Which in a way, we were. I snuggled back to her.

    “I always said no man would get next to me unless he was the last soul on earth. I guess you qualify, Handsome.”

    I squeezed her. “I’m surprised you got life for that. Considering what he had done to you.”

    She shrugged. “It’s probably because I sewed his nuts inside his mouth. The judge was a man, and men hate that kind of shit.”

    * * *​

    We stayed around the stream for a few days, scouting, exploring, fucking. It was the happiest time I can remember. We talked about staying, building a home, having some kind of real life. We needed tools and knew where an roomful of them waited. We started back.

    “It won’t be easy,” I said. “Those tools are for digging, not building, but I think—“

    The Amazon walked next to me, her eyes lowered. She was rubbing the back of her head.

    My breath caught. I told myself to relax. Probably just the sun. Or maybe she slept funny. She had been quiet all morning.

    God, no. . . .

    It got worse. By nightfall, she was wincing constantly. I still hadn’t said anything. What the fuck was there to say?

    She brought it up herself, finally. “My head feels like someone’s driving nails in it. My shoulders, too. My joints.”

    “Probably the sun. Or all those damned turnips.”

    “Does your head hurt?”

    I took a shallow breath. “No.”

    We stared at each other as the light drained out of the sky, then I grabbed her and held her like there was no tomorrow.

    * * *​

    That night, we lay together, looking at the alien sky of our home, taking turns making up constellations and the stories behind them.

    “That’s my favorite,” she said pointing to an open cluster of stars.

    “Tell me about it,” I whispered.

    “No one knows its name. All those stars used to be trapped, pressed together in a cage. But then one of them—that bright one—figured out the lock and sprung them all. See how they’re flying away, into the night? Free. Never gonna be caged again.”

    The stars blurred. I blinked, but it didn’t help.

    She rested her head against mine. Watching the stars rotate toward dawn, she went to sleep.

    * * *​

    On our way back to camp, we found the Giant. He lay twisted in brown, blood-caked sand, face black from the discharge that had ejected from his mouth, nose, eyes, ears. I wondered how long he had stumbled around this barren nightmare, alone, dying, before his body erupted in geysers of blood.

    I couldn’t help glancing at Khali. She stared at his bloating corpse, absently rubbing the back of her head. Without looking at me, she said, “Handsome . . .”

    I bit my lip. “Yeah?”

    “You would never let that happen to me, right? “

    “It’s not going to happen to you!”

    “I don’t want to bleed out. I don’t want you to remember me like that.”

    “It’s not going to happen,” I repeated. “Look at me.”

    Reluctantly, she raised her head. I looked into her eyes. They were as blood-red as the sunset. I bit my lip to keep from reacting, but she saw it my face anyway.

    Khali nodded. “I guess it’s God’s little joke, to bleed out after what I did to him.”

    Before I could respond, I heard something behind me. A noise, in a world as quiet as an Egyptian crypt.

    I turned, looked around. It was a very quiet, very low sound, at the threshold of hearing. Almost like a growl. Suddenly two loud bangs startled us. “The dropship!” I yelled, turning to Khali. “It’s here!”

    She breathed a huge sigh of relief. “Then let’s get the fuck off this rock!” She started back for camp, but I hesitated, looking one more time on the Giant’s body, lying abandoned for eternity in this shallow pit on this empty world.

    He had walked away from us, not from fear, but out of compassion. Willing to die like this, alone, to protect a couple of strangers.

    I had no words for him. I turned toward the camp and didn’t look back.

    * * *​

    We made it back a couple of hours later, close to sunset. The evac ship had already landed, riding the howl of its vectored thrust engines to the ground. It was unmanned, of course. No point in risking good, law-abiding citizens just to pull a few criminals off a distant rock. It sat perched on its landing skids, a magnificent, gleaming creature of metal, come from a world thriving with fellow humans, food, entertainment—and medical facilities.

    And prisons. But I didn’t give a fuck about prison, any more. All I wanted was to get Khali back to someone who could help her.

    I rushed to the side of the ship as the warning siren blared. A robotic voice announced, “Five minutes. Five minutes until airlock seal.”

    Plenty of time. I popped open the access panel and started to press the “Cycle—open” button.

    “Handsome,” Khali called from behind me. “Handsome, stop.”

    I turned. She stood about ten meters away, not moving, not approaching the ship. “What are you doing?” I cried. “Let’s go!”

    “Handsome . . .,” she said again, still not moving. I raced over to her.

    “We’re running out of time!”

    She shook her head. “I’m already out of time, Handsome. I’m staying here.”

    What the hell? I grabbed her shoulders, looked into those blood-red eyes. “Maybe they can help—”

    “It’s too late, Handsome. C’mon, man, you know that. It’s too late.”

    I stared at her, tears pouring into my eyes, running down my face but drying and evaporating into the dry desert air before reaching my chin. Stolen by this planet like it was stealing Khali.

    “You know I’m right, Handsome,” she said, her own tears drying on that round, black, beautiful face. “You know.”

    I knew.

    I turned back to the waiting ship. The voice announced, “Two minutes.”

    “Khali,” I said, turning, but she had already backed away from me.

    “Go, Handsome. Get outta here while you can.”

    I stayed rooted to the spot until I heard, “One minute. One minute.”

    Finally, I turned and walked slowly back to the ship, thinking. I placed my thumb on the button, but didn’t press it. Ten days, and I could be home. Back to a world of vids, music, and companionship, sort of.

    And a lifetime of imprisonment, with memories of these last weeks cycling through my mind every day until I died. Every day, imagining Khali in agony, dying on a planet that she walked alone.

    Alone.

    And what of me? In ten days, I could be back. Ten days, locked in a tiny metal room, waiting to explode in a crimson fountain. Or maybe waiting to survive. I thought of Danny, of the life running out of his eyes while I stared in paralyzed shock. Sergeant Yukoshi, trying to stem the air hemorrhaging from her suit. And Ms. Harrison, her faith in me leaking away with her blood. I tried to imagine the little girl Khali had saved. And I thought of forty billion other humans, an entire race of fragile, hopeful, but ultimately hopeless, beings fighting to stave off the inevitable.

    Maybe I was immune. Maybe I could live a long, healthy life back on a world of fellow humans. And maybe not.

    I stared at the button, felt its smooth polymer finish under the coarse skin of my thumb.

    “Ten seconds,” the ship announced.

    “Handsome?” Khali called behind me, her voice high, tight.

    I pulled my thumb away.

    The ship announced, “Airlock sealed. Departure in fifteen minutes. Please stand clear.”

    I turned and walked back to her.

    * * *​

    We still had running water so we took the longest showers of our lives. Of course the food procs ignored us; no one had fed the recycler in ten days. But we had plenty of the turnips for now.

    We took water cups outside and sat sipping it, our shoulders touching, in a narrow strip of shade beside the hab, watching the ship like it were some kind of rare bird not to be approached. After a few minutes, the take-off alarm rang. Moments later, the engines whined to full power, and with a great roar, the silver bird lifted and raced away, as empty as it had arrived.

    The sun disappeared; night fell on us as if God had thrown it over the planet, hiding us from the rest of the universe. But then the stars sprang into the heavens, unwilling to abandon us.

    “Handsome,” Khali said.

    “Yes?”

    “You’ll take care of it for me, right? Tonight?”

    I held my drink, staring at it in silence.

    “I don’t want to bleed out like the others. I don’t want to go that way.”

    I took the saddest breath of my life. “Khali, I won’t let that happen.”

    Her teeth shone in the starlight. “I knew you wouldn’t, Handsome.”

    * * *​

    I buried her the next morning. I hollowed out as much soil as possible, placed her body in the ground, and covered her with a cairn of stones. Kind of pointless, I know, but I felt better once she was covered in her final resting place.

    I sat for awhile, talking to her, singing to her at last.

    That was two days ago.

    This voice recorder was still under my bunk, so I recorded this message. Not sure why: maybe to make my confession. Maybe so any other fools who come here will know what happened and leave—hopefully burning this hell-hole down to bedrock behind them.

    And maybe so someone might know about Miguel, and Adrienne, and Felix, and Giger, and Khali. And me, Markus Constapolous. Not that anyone will care, I suppose. But at least they’ll know that what happened here, stayed here—shared only among we sad six. That we died on this god-forsaken world so that others wouldn’t—and so that those other forty billions could go on with their lives, never knowing the horror we might have brought back with us.

    Our debt to society, paid in full.

    I’m leaving the camp now; I’ll leave the recorder on my bunk, just in case. I’m going back to the creek where the cool water rushes between your toes, and turnips grow that taste like freedom. There, I’ll finish naming the constellations. I’ve decided to call the open cluster “Freedom,” and its brightest star, Khali.

    I should be finished by dawn. That’s good, because the headaches have already started.
     
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